Academia: School Simulator is like Prison Architect but with kids

I'd like to blame my school's layout on poor planning, but that would assume there was any planning at all. As I do in every other game where you build stuff, I just sort of built stuff, which is why children arrive to start their lessons by walking through an area designated for garbage and winding up directly beside another area designated for garbage. Will these fresh-face tots feel their hearts swell with school pride when they walk in the front door each morning and are greeted by the sight of a janitorial closet, a bathroom, another bathroom, and a third bathroom?

I'm here to find out. I've been playing Academia: School Simulator, which is now in Steam Early Access. It looks a lot like Prison Architect (Ryan Sumo, PA's artist, co-founded Squeaky Wheel, which is developing Academia) and it plays a lot like Prison Architect, too. Everything from the art to the UI to the building and management systems are extremely reminiscent of Prison Architect, except your building is full of kids instead of prisoners—though it's not difficult to draw some parallels between public education and incarceration.

Beginning with just some grassy terrain and a handful of expectant workers, I lay down tile floors, build brick walls, and zone for classrooms, a cafeteria, and a kitchen. I initially forget to put in bathrooms, though I'm sharp enough to notice that my students keep running outside to pee in the bushes. Let the trauma and embarrassment of school life begin!

I add the required fittings for each room: desks and chalkboards, toilets and sinks, fridges and ovens, tables and chairs. There's no power lines or water piping to deal with (at the moment at least), so you just plunk something down and it works. I hire staff members: teachers, custodians, cooks, and a few extra laborers.

Kids come to school, they mill around in areas like the 'club' room or computer lab, they go to class (in fact, oddly, they get there before the teachers do). They track dirt everywhere, they leave litter lying in the hallways, they complain about being hungry or bored. Especially hungry. After a few days pass I notice kids are sitting in class thinking about burgers, and then they go to the cafeteria and think about burgers, and then they go back to class where they think about burgers. I glance at a kid using the toilet. His thought is: burgers.

Clearly something is wrong, and not just the fact that I'm sitting here watching a high school freshman take a dump while reading his mind. It looks like my cooks aren't cooking and there are food deliveries piling up outside. I fire my cooking staff, replace them, but everyone in the school is still thinking burgers without ever getting any burgers. Finally, I check the Steam forums which say it's a known bug and restarting the game may help. Once I restart, the kitchen staff hops to, brings in food, cooks it, and serves it. The kids go back to thinking about science and books.

I continue building, adding more classrooms to accommodate a crowd of transfer students, I rezone some rooms for sophomores, juniors, and seniors, and I add a statue at the school's entrance which I hope will pull the eye away from two large garbage areas that I can't be bothered to relocate. I build a place for the faculty to hang out and commiserate over their low pay, and I'm even kind enough to take a moment to rescue the school medical staff, several workers, and two teachers who have been trapped in a wing of the school I forgot to build doors on.

Despite my various blunders, my school remains profitable for the most part. I've satisfied the requirements of all the grants available (as in Prison Architect, these are little challenges that earn you additional money), and I've currently got 80 students on my way to 100, once I build a few more classrooms (hopefully at least a couple with doors on them). My kids aren't especially thrilled with my school, but apart from littering and having impure burger-related thoughts, they're all behaving.

At this point in Academia's development, it doesn't feel like there's much depth to the simulation, but I'm going to keep my eye on this game. I love Prison Architect, and If enough layers are added to Academia it could be as interesting and compelling a game as PA, though I'm also hoping Squeaky Wheel has plans to distinguish themselves from Introversion's prison sim with some new and different gameplay systems. It's off to an enjoyable start, anyway.

Academia: School Simulator is in Early Access on Steam. It's also got an official site where you can follow its development. Just finish your homework first.

Christopher Livingston
Senior Editor

Chris started playing PC games in the 1980s, started writing about them in the early 2000s, and (finally) started getting paid to write about them in the late 2000s. Following a few years as a regular freelancer, PC Gamer hired him in 2014, probably so he'd stop emailing them asking for more work. Chris has a love-hate relationship with survival games and an unhealthy fascination with the inner lives of NPCs. He's also a fan of offbeat simulation games, mods, and ignoring storylines in RPGs so he can make up his own.